Interview: Erik Eggens – Yamaha’s MXGP overseer

Erik Eggens is again in a prominent position in the MXGP FIM World Championship paddock. The Dutchman has been wearing Yamaha blue for the last half a decade as he transitioned away from being an exceptional (if a little unlucky) Grand Prix athlete and winner to test rider, consultant and ultimately Motocross Manager for Yamaha Motor Europe.

Eggens and the weight of the marketing and strategic division at Yamaha have overseen an ‘explosion’, expansion and gathering-together of ‘blue’ inside MXGP and European Championship racing, with the manufacturer now presenting one of the biggest and best-supported images within global top-flight motocross competition. It’s impressive stuff and at the peak is the mighty Monster Energy Yamaha factory team in MXGP.

Eggens has been through the mill as a motocrosser. From humble beginnings funding his own racing efforts and team to the heights of GP wins at the start of the century and works machinery he has also tasted injury, illness, disappointment and forced decline. However his cheery disposition and transparent love and addition for MX was always prominent: it was never a problem for Erik to stop and chat while moving through the paddock that he called ‘home’ for the majority of his 40 years.

His role with Yamaha meant a change. He influences a far greater group of people compared to the singular and individual focus needed as a racer. He is now a few years into the job but Yamaha has rarely looked stronger both on the track (they are podium contenders in MXGP and MX2 and front-runners in EMX) and off it, and they are still plotting.

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Curious as to how a Grand Prix star converts into holding a position of influence and how Yamaha have swelled so significantly in the last three years we grabbed some time with the former #77 for some insight.

Was the morph from GP winner to the next chapter of your professional career something that took time?

It took quite a while from being a GP winner to adapt to having a job like I am doing now for two reasons: my last GP win was quite a long time ago! I did another six-seven years as a Pro racer. And, secondly, when I decided to stop I did not immediately start in this role for Yamaha. To adapt from focussing 24-7 on getting the best from yourself as a rider was not too bad for me and went quite smoothly. I did not stop riding completely and even today I’m on the bike as a hobby. I’m lucky because my job now means I am still doing something in a sport I love, so it was not like I faced a huge turning point in my life. I have different responsibilities now and it can sometimes be difficult but I know I have great people behind me at Yamaha and they gave me great advice at times to help me develop.

You went from only have to worry and manage yourself to several teams, many people, characters and nationalities. That must have been tricky…

Before I became a Pro I managed my own team in order to be able to ride – so sponsors, mechanics, press – that gave some training. Of course today the sport is different but I think the goal is still the same: to win and to get the best out of what we are doing in racing so that means visibility, promotion and developing the best packages with riders, teams, technical suppliers and partners. Every day I’m still trying to understand where-and-how we can do better; whether it is with riders, with teams or inside teams or the relationship with partners. If we do a good job and make improvements then we can be said to be moving forward. So it is a bit different for me but the objective is very similar.

People see you now as ‘Yamaha’, and planning strategies inside motocross and MXGP. How would a rider go about wanting to be a part of the Yamaha project?

Luckily we have all the pieces of the puzzle to create a very nice picture of our racing, simply because we have all the products to be able to be present in every class. Going from PW50 to 65, 85, 125, 250 two-stroke, 250 and 450 and we support those classes. We have a very strong programme with development. So entering as a rider I think it’s clear to see there is a structure and with bLU cRU we can start at an early phase of a rider’s career. We can see them coming up and progressing as they work their way up the pyramid to the top: the MXGP class. So we have that structure, which is quite new and we are still improving it because the YZ65 is a new model and the 85 was recently unveiled. Yamaha has the spirit to go racing directly with their products, particularly at youth level, and this programme will evolve as new products come and others are renewed. I think this is a big positive thing and we only get stronger if we focus on other elements around the product. For the riders that begin their journey with us we try our hardest to facilitate their growth and support in the best way with a professional environment. We’re proud of this…but must keep working to increase the scope so that riders find it nice to be part of this plan and can move up to the highest level possible.

You make the contracts. But generally do you deal with the riders much?

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On a daily basis I am aware of what is going on with our guys and can try to help and give Yamaha’s direction with any issues. The teams are obviously working on a daily plan with the guys whether that means dealing with the trainer, the team manager, the team owner. It is important that this whole group of people is in line with the direction that Yamaha wants to go, and this is a non-stop dialogue. If we talk about the highest levels, so Grand Prix or European Championships, then we like to make sure we take care of our riders’ needs so we have an osteopath – someone who can understand the physical impacts of the sport – and other provisions like hospitality. Our strength is our products but it is also important that we recognise and support that the person on the bike is ‘one’ with the bike. So we understand the kind of back-up we need to give.

You understand the riders because you’ve also had the glory, dips and the pain of injury so does it mean tough conversations with athletes are harder for you?

Yes, but you have to understand what you can do and whether there are things you can change or adjust. We have to consider the options, and ask if any changes are good for ‘today’ but also for the future for the rider and also the team. There can be many things that affect a decision or a strategy. If a contract did not work then I have to look in the mirror and say “how can I do that better next time?” It might be with a rider, a team or a path of development. It’s about finding the best way for Yamaha. Each manufacturer has their own structure and us as well. In racing – whether you win or lose – you are thinking about how you can win again and it is a process. Many times when you speak with a rider or a team there is a reason why things are not turning out how they should. It is stupid to continue without thinking ‘can we change?’ And if we cannot – and it still doesn’t work – then we cannot continue. Maybe a rider has a different vision or we under-or-overestimated the skills, dedication or motivation. Results are very black and white and easy to see but many things can influence a win or a second place. We have to make sure that the structure has stability as part of our plan. If the team and structure is at a good level then it should be good for the rider.

Winning or riding at your best must have been the highlights of being a racer. What’s the juice of the job now?

There are so many good parts. To see improvement is the best. Three or four years ago we knew there was not enough ‘blue’ in the Grand Prix paddock and what remained was quite isolated. That is not the case now and you see even more of it at public tracks. It is this type of thing that makes me happy. At one time there was talk of [the industry heading towards] two-stroke of four-stroke and to see us now making a new 65 two-stroke is fantastic and seeing how we can take this into our racing structure. Happiness can be related to a position on the track…but it is not only that. If a rider can turn around a weekend into something positive then that is also rewarding. I struggle to think of something negative about the job.

Interview: Tom Jacobs

Pic: Monster Energy